Music With Mrs. Tanenblatt

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Token Economy: A Love-Hate Relationship

This morning, as I spent a good chunk of my planning time standing at the photocopier and paper cutter, my mind began to wander. I was completing my monthly task of copying page after page of cartoonish, fake money. This is the "token" that we use to reward students for their good behavior at one of my schools. 

This is a view of the top of my cart.
You can see the Star Bucks tucked away in one of the blue bins.

Actually, all four of the schools where I have taught have been PBIS schools, so they have all used some type of token economy. PBIS, for those unfamiliar with the acronym, stands for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, and is a nationally recognized program for behavior management. (You can read more about the program here.)

This is the definition of PBIS, taken directly from their website:

PBIS is a framework or approach for assisting school personnel in adopting and organizing evidence-based behavioral interventions into an integrated continuum that enhances academic and social behavior outcomes for all students. PBIS IS NOT a packaged curriculum, scripted intervention, or manualized strategy. PBIS IS a prevention-oriented way for school personnel to (a) organize evidence-based practices, (b) improve their implementation of those practices, and (c) maximize academic and social behavior outcomes for students. PBIS supports the success of ALLstudents.
In my school, we implement it school-wide. This means that every student and teacher has recognized our four major goals:
  • Respect Myself
  • Respect Others
  • Respect Learning
  • Respect Property
As a music teacher, my main relationship with PBIS comes in the form of recognizing these correct behaviors and positively reinforcing them with my students. In order to give positive reinforcement, we use a token economy. At one of my schools, because our mascot is the Star, our tokens are called "Star Bucks." (This CONSTANTLY confused me during my first year here because I heard people talking about them and I thought they were discussing coffee.) Basically, I am supposed to hand out a Star Buck every time I see a student doing the right thing.

This brings us back to me, this morning. While I was hunched over the paper cutter, trying to trim pages and pages of these little fake dollars, I couldn't help but ponder the futility of it all. "Why do I waste my time doing this?" I thought to myself, "My students should want to succeed in my class without me having to pay them." I also thought, "I could really use an assistant to do my copying and cutting for me."

Is it really worth my time to dole out the Star Bucks, day in and day out?

The short answer is yes

The long answer? Well, keep reading...

I've been plagued by an internal struggle, a love-hate relationship, over this token economy. On one hand, it feels like bribery to me. I see correct behaviors in my students, which is GREAT. However, I can't help feeling that the only reason I am seeing these correct behaviors is because the student knows that he or she will get a Starbuck as a reward. Later, a certain number of Starbucks can be redeemed for a toy or prize from the "Star Cart." 

One of the worst side-effects that I've seen from using the token economy is how students come to expect it. I daresay they even feel entitled to it. Sometimes when I compliment a student on correct behavior, they respond by looking at me expectantly or even blatantly asking me if they can have a Starbuck. I can't help but compare this look to a trained dog who has just performed a trick and is waiting for a doggie biscuit.

Photo Source:

Is this really how we want our children to view life? Do a good deed, get a reward. By training our students to use the token economy, we are destroying their sense of intrinsic motivation. Rather than behaving well because it's the right thing to do, they are only doing so because they think they will get a reward for doing it.

On the other hand, most adults that I know do the exact same thing. We can't really blame children for acting this way when we all do it. I worked some minimum wage, dead-end jobs while I was in school. Did I serve fast food because I felt intrinsically motivated to do it? Was I selling clothing to get a sense of self-satisfaction? Of course not. I did these things because I was getting paid. 

For students, school is their job. Why shouldn't they expect to earn something when they have done their job well?

After toying with various methods of using the Star Bucks (and observing some very skilled veteran teachers), I've come up with my own system for distributing them. These are my own personal guidelines for giving them out:
  • Never distribute them to every student in a class.
    Be spontaneous with them. If students never know who is going to get one and for what, they will be more patient. I never want my students to think they earn one just for showing up. 
  • Never give a student more than one per class.
    Rather than just letting one child rack up the money, I will say something like, "Great job, Susie. You are staying so focused and quiet today. This is why you earned a Star Buck earlier."
  • Always state the reason why a student has earned the Star Buck.
    Make sure to tie the reward in with the behavior you are looking for. Students don't just earn them because you like them or because they are a good student. In fact,
  • Never use a Star Buck to reward academics.
    These are for rewarding behavior only.
  • Never use a Star Buck as a bargaining device.
    I never use phrases like, "I will give a Star Buck to the first student who stands quietly in line." To me, this defeats the purpose because then I know I'm only seeing correct behavior because I made the bargain.
Personally, I feel that the main reason for using a token economy is to prepare our students for a time when it will be taken away. They should be getting used to what's expected of them in school and consistently demonstrate it regardless of a reward. I think of my Star Bucks as training wheels. They are a useful crutch for when I feel my students need a little extra push. I use them frequently at the beginning of the school year and right after a long break, and gradually give out less and less as my students settle into our school routines.


Please let me know in the comments if you or your school uses a token economy and what your thoughts are on the subject. I'd love to know what other methods are out there.


  1. I never worked in a school that used PBIS, so this was extremely interesting to read. When you first mentioned Star Bucks, I thought you were talking about coffee too :) I LOVE the guidelines you've set, and the fact that you don't use it as a bargaining device. Thanks for sharing!

    1. I'm glad you found it interesting! I was worried that the post was too long and no one would read it ;)

  2. I just took my PBIS-style system from my own classroom school-wide. My guidelines are similar to yours. I think spontaneity is key. I do occasionally announce in advance ("I will give a ticket for...") when we are doing something really difficult or tedious and it just needs a little bit of extra external motivation. I agree though, the extrinsic motivators are just practice to get you to internal motivation. I wrote about my school-wide system here:

  3. Sorry, I'm coming a bit late to the conversation, but I wanted to chime in because you summed up my feelings about PBIS almost exactly. Our school gives out "Spot-o-Grams" for our three R's (Being Respectful, Being Responsible, Being Ready to Learn). I definitely don't give out as many as other teachers for a couple of reasons. First, they're a pain! We can't just hand them to a student, we need to fill it out with their name and grade, the date, and then sign it. I know that's really not a great reason, but I usually don't want (or even think) to interrupt the flow of my class to fill out the slip for someone, especially when my time with them is so short. Second, I often find that entitled attitude you mentioned a bit off-putting. I know we're trying to lead them toward being intrinsically motivated, but I don't really see them being weaned from the system. Instead, they just come to expect it as their due, which leads to my final (and probably most important) concern. I fear the consequences of heaping praise on students just for doing what's expected of them. I hear what you're saying about paying students for a job done well, but I think it's important to emphasize the "job done well" portion of that statement. I try to save the SOG's that I do give out for students that have gone above and beyond. That may look different for different students. For some, it might be showing responsibility in cleaning up a mess that wasn't theirs without being asked. For others, it might be acting as a positive role model when others around them are going crazy. For still others, it may just be showing great self-control during a situation or a class when that is normally very hard for them. I like your guidelines, Rachel. I think I do a lot of that already because it makes sense, but it's helpful to see it laid out so clearly, so thank you for taking the time to do that.

    As part of this conversation, however, I also feel that it's important to bring up treating symptoms vs. treating the root cause. Unfortunately, many people think school is like the dead-end job you mentioned. What if we put more effort into making it an exciting opportunity for learning and growth rather than drudgery? I know that's easier said than done, and it might make me sound naive and idealistic, but if we can fix the engagement issue, we probably wouldn't need the PBIS system, at least in it's current form. I see the difference in my students when I'm teaching a lesson in which I've put a lot of thought and preparation and a lesson that was thrown together quickly because of whatever else has been going on. It's kind of a sobering thought, but my "on-ness" or "off-ness" can have a huge impact on behavior. Maybe if we can take steps to make sure that we're having more "on" days more of the time, we'd have fewer behavior problems. Of course, I know that many of us are in situations that can make that very hard, but that's probably a whole other can of worms, and this comment is getting to be as long as the original post. Sorry! Thank you for sharing your thoughts, though! I enjoy hearing other people's perspectives on these types of systems!